[Sept. 2016 Opinions] Hate speech is not a political viewpoint

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By Jackie Sussman ’17 Whip

Freedom does not exist.  Period.  What we mistake for freedom is merely the set of behavior that is acceptable in contrast to behavior that is not.  The same applies to free speech.  Speech is only free when it falls under a list of legal fighting words; words that present a clear and present danger are not to be used.  And this is as it should be.  Afterall, complete freedom leads to chaos.


However, the rules of verbal engagement have been challenged at the University of Chicago.  There, John Ellison, the Dean of Students, wrote that the University would not recognize “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” because they violated free speech.  


At first glance, the decision to remove trigger warnings and safe spaces seems justified.  A college campus is the ideal melting pot, a pinnacle of diversity in backgrounds and viewpoints, and students should immerse themselves in such diversity to broaden their own perspectives and develop a globalized viewpoint.


No one, I hope, disagrees with that perspective.  I, of all people, a right-wing libertarian objectivist, would be disadvantaged the most from a college campus that equates “fighting words” with different perspectives considering mine would be the “differing” perspective.  And, I am not going to deny that the events at Mizzou and Yale — in which activist students literally silenced the opposing (right-wing) perspectives — proved that some student cultures do perceive different viewpoints as a danger to their own.


Yet, upon closer examination, the University of Chicago’s action demonstrates a misunderstanding about safe spaces.  Denotatively, a safe space is not a place that silences opposing perspectives.  The term, according to the Safe Space Network, originated in the 1960s to help members of the LGBTQ community cope with homophobia, and is not the antipathy of free speech nor the manifestation of ultra-left intolerance.  Rather, it is a place where students can temporarily assemble and feel comfortable with their own identities and backgrounds.   Really?  That is what is going to be unrecognized by a university — not just any university, but the University of Chicago, an institution for the academic elite?  Why is that any different than a Jewish person attending a Hillel, or a feminist attending a Girls in S.T.E.M. club meeting?


Moreover, there is a second confusion, which is perhaps what makes the letter disparaging safe spaces and trigger warnings more erroneous.  Many of these students that need safe spaces have experienced some sort of adversity due to factors out of their control.  They are faced with hateful viewpoints every day and need a safe space for refuge.


By not allowing them to have these safe spaces, these same students are forced to confront hateful viewpoints in an academic setting.  Condoning hateful viewpoints — hate speech even — in an academic setting is a form of legitimization.  By not restricting these hateful  viewpoints, they are seemingly made as legitimate  as liberalism, conservatism, utilitarianism, libertarianism, objectivism, socialism, and more.  The truth is, a university is not real life, and not all opinions are equally legitimate.  


In an attempt to create a tolerant, magnanimous environment where all viewpoints could be freely expressed, this letter from the University of Chicago to its Class of 2020 may create an academic climate antipathetic to this goal.